Finding Jack directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh believed they had struck gold. Unable to find the perfect actor for a role in their Vietnam War drama, they decided to use cutting edge technology to resurrect one of Hollywood’s greatest legends, James Dean. Using digital technology, the co-directors would cast a CGI James Dean in a major supporting role in their adaptation of the novel by Gareth Crocker. Then, the backlash started to roll in: It’s a dishonor to Dean’s legacy, cinematic sacrilege, critics cried. And Ernst and Golykh were somehow baffled.
A few days after Ernst and Golykh’s announcement of the casting of a CGI James Dean in their film Finding Jack, the co-directors are responding to the backlash from numerous movie fans, critics, and Hollywood stars. Chris Evans called the decision shameful, while Zelda Williams, whose father Robin Williams had banned the use of his image 25 years after his death, said “It sets such an awful precedent for the future of performance.”
“We don’t really understand it. We never intended for this to be a marketing gimmick,” director Anton Ernst tells The Hollywood Reporter in response to the negative criticism.
And yet marketing gimmick it has become, as Ernst and Golykh are fairly unknown directors whose names have now been launched into the public eye thanks to their association with this ghoulish casting decision. While it’s surprising that two unknown directors could obtain the use of Dean’s image for their Vietnam War drama, Ernst’s recently launched Magic City Films company reportedly obtained the rights from Dean’s living relatives, represented by CMG Worldwide. They would not be the first either — Dean’s name and likeness has been used in ad and merchandising campaigns over the years including in Dolce & Gabbana, Allure Eyewear, H&M and Jose Cuervo. Ernst said that Dean’s estate, which is run by two cousins on the late actor’s father’s side, has been “supportive” of the film.
“I think they would have wanted their family member’s legacy to live on. That’s what we’ve done here as well. We’ve brought a whole new generation of filmgoers to be aware of James Dean,” said Ernst.
Ernst compared their casting of Dean in Finding Jack to Fisher’s posthumous appearances in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which is comprised of archival footage pieced together after the star’s sudden passing. “Visual effects is a tool,” Ernst said, adding, “Anyone that is brought back to life — you have to respect them.” Ernst said that if Fisher had never wanted to be in a film after her death, “then that should be a line.”
“I think the line should be … you must always honor the deceased’s wishes and try to act in a way that is honorable and full of dignity,” Ernst said.
But there is a marked difference between the digital insertion of Fisher, which was done out of narrative necessity and in homage to the actress under the guidance of her daughter Billie Lourde, and the casting of Dean, which could have been entirely avoided. And when Dean passed in 1955, the concept of digital resurrection was not even a prospect, and there’s no way he could have given or denied permission. Any actors who died before this technology became a reality could then be subject to being digitally recreated long after their passing — something we’ve seen with Laurence Olivier’s appearance in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Humphrey Bogart’s “starring” role in the Tales From the Crypt episode “You, Murderer.” The prospect is a little frightening, and opens the doors to a future where actors may not have control over how their image is used.
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